“Sometimes I think ‘How did we go to Norway?’ I still can’t believe it,” says 14-year-old Adam Low. A member of Junction 25, a Glasgow-based contemporary performance group for young people, Adam is, like his peers, incredulous at the extraordinary success they have achieved in recent years. In addition to lavish praise from critics, their work has travelled to London's BAC and the Rogaland Teater in Stavanger, Norway. They even appeared at the lauded Forest Fringe in 2009 – an impressive achievement for what is, at its most basic level, an after-school drama group for 12 to 17 year olds.
This year marks their first extended run at the Edinburgh Fringe, where they will be performing I Hope My Heart Goes First, a meditation on love, loss and the physical mechanics of the heart. It's a mark of Junction 25's quality that they have been included in the prestigious Made in Scotland showcase, a Scottish Government funded exercise now in its third year, that aims to present exciting work from across the country at the Fringe. For co-founders Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore, this fulfils the original goal of the project when it began in 2005.
“In the beginning," Thorpe explains, "our main aim was that we didn't want anyone to ever say our work is ‘good for kids’. There's such a culture of patronising young people in the arts. I don't understand why just because someone is young, they are less interesting or have less of an important thing to say about the world. So we began by talking about how can we put their voice on the same platform as everyone else. And being included in Made in Scotland seems like the pinnacle of that.”
I Hope My Heart Goes First certainly isn't just "good for kids". Since it's a devised work, there's no real script or narrative, and its captivating honesty is underlined by the fact that the performers are basically playing a version of themselves. This candour is combined with inventive staging, engaging humour and compelling performances that make every story, joke and opinion expressed resonate strongly with audience members of any age. And, like every Junction 25 show, its material comes directly from its members' own experiences.
Thorpe explains: "People sometimes ask us how we've managed to get such good performances out of them, but actually they're just being themselves and we've created a safe space for that to happen. When creating a new show, we all come up with a theme together. In this case, Nathan, one of our members, suggested making a work called 'I Hope My Heart Goes First' because he'd just lost someone in his family who'd had a heart attack. And we were talking about different experiences of love, heartbreak and loss and how sometimes as a young person you don't always get to experience that fully because people try to protect you. So we had a big debate about it and when we have a big debate, then we feel we should make a show about that issue.”
Once the group have decided on a line of enquiry, Thorpe and Gore—both contemporary performance practitioners who also set up the devised theatre group Glas(s) Performance—build a structure around it: “We try to create a theatrical framework around the issue they want to explore but the performances come from their personalities. For example, one of our members, Scott, was interested in the actual mechanics of the heart, because that's how he thinks. So we asked him to create a mini lecture to give the audience an overview of what the heart is. But we've we’ve tried not be really hetero-normative about it – like, love isn't just about a boy and a girl and that's it. So there's deliberate attempts to represent different combinations that make love in young people's experiences, and all of our experiences."
There's also a strong emphasis on making work that's authentic. She adds, "I think one of the reasons it has been so successful is that people find it exciting to watch young people talk clearly and confidently about themselves. As a group, we always talk about not wanting to make Skins, because things are just not that sexy in real life. We have to remember that this is about the group understanding the work they're making and the importance of having a voice when you're a young person."
I Hope My Heart Goes First was first performed in Glasgow in 2009, and re-visiting it this year—now its performers are two years older—has meant that many elements of the original show have had to be altered or "aged-up". “Adam is on stage the whole time,” Thorpe explains, “and he’s writing a list on the back wall of everything that he loves. He does that continuously throughout the whole show. When we first performed it, he was 11 so he loved things like Power Rangers. Now it's the band Foals. So he just writes things that he loves at that point in time and that changes in every performance. Another member, Fern, hadn't been in a relationship when we first performed this show and she originally asked a list of questions about love. Now, she's with someone and feels weird about those questions, so we've had to age those up."
This constant re-invention of work is a challenge that the teens of Junction 25 seem to relish. Claire Morris, 15, says "I love coming back to work we've done in the past because all you can do is improve it. You get to know the shows really well because you have so much more of a dynamic."
However, their non-conventional approach to drama does make it difficult to explain to their peers what their shows are about. “My friends are like, ‘what do you mean you're playing yourself?’” says Adam. Christie Bissett, 17, adds: “People ask if you've got a big part, but it's not really like that. At first, Junction 25 seems so strange because you're not sure how to react. It takes a while to sink into but once you get used to it, it seems like the most natural way to make a performance. Now, I wouldn't think of making one any other way.”
With their current Fringe run, dedicated funding from Glasgow's Tramway and a recent collaboration with acclaimed artist Nic Green, Junction 25's future looks rosy. And it's a project that Thorpe hopes will continue long after she and Gore has departed: "There's a couple of young people in the group who are studying drama and contemporary performance practice, and the hope is that in a few year's time, when they're more confident, they'll take it over. I feel like you've got to set up projects that can sustain themselves without you. Otherwise it becomes a kind of empire and that's not what we're interested in."